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Jackson prisoners get involved in chili cook-off

LAKEFIELD -- Even the prisoners in the Jackson County jail are contributing to the Kids Against Hunger Chili Cook-Off Sunday, offering up their very own jailhouse chili recipe, to be cooked by jail staff with the blessing of Jackson County Sheriff Roger Hawkinson.

The annual chili feed is one of only two Kids Against Hunger fundraisers in the area, both of which raise funds to send inexpensive, nutritious meals to people who desperately need them all over the world.

This year, many of the meals will go to Haiti, assisting victims of the recent catastrophic earthquake, but Minnesota's Kids Against Hunger operation has been helping out in Haiti for years. Local organizations there like working with KAH because it handles all the red tape and administrative issues, so that all the local groups need to do is pick up the food and distribute it.

"When you watch the stuff on the news about Haiti, it is so overwhelming that there's a chance you can become paralyzed and think 'what can I do?'" said Marless Cuperus, fundraising coordinator for Jackson County KAH. "This is something we all can do. It's a positive, fun event, and you can say 'I tried. I did what I could.' We can't all go to Haiti. We have to do what we can."

The cook-off will be from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday at Immanuel Activity Center, Lakefield, and it will feature three categories of chili.

"Ambulance, which is your throat-searing, 9-1-1 chili, Family, which is your good, nourishing home-made chili, and then the third category is Exotic, which has an unusual ingredient," Cuperus explained. "And we have had bear, elk, venison, pepperoni and emu."

Last year's champions will return to defend their titles Sunday, with Pat Costello and Christian Akers cooperating on a hot Peruvian chili, Chrystal Dunker defending her title for creativity -- which involves the presentation of the chili -- and Lexi Dashem, 11, defending her title in the Exotic category. Dashem will use several secret ingredients in her pepperoni chili.

So far, 16 chili chefs have signed up for the cook-off, and they will be judged in three different ways -- people's choice, in which all the tasters who attend the cook-off will vote on their favorites in a category, blind judging and finally, creativity, in which the best chili presentation is chosen.

"We've had people coming forward this year who are cooking chili who have never done it before -- new chefs, new people, and people I didn't know where chili chefs," Cuperus said. "They're coming up to me and saying 'I make a really great chili, and this is a really great cause.'"

Local businesses, too, are doing their part to assist Kids Against Hunger's efforts in Lakefield. The Hilltop Café, for example, will close during the cook-off, leaving a note asking people to attend the event instead, and two of the Hilltop waitresses will make chili. The Jackson County Dairy Association is supplying ice cream for the event, which will help chili-lovers cool off between bouts with spicy food.

For those who aren't chili fans, there will be hamburger vegetable soup, and lots and lots of home-made bread and muffins will be available to cleanse the palate between chilis.

Lee Harding of Akron, Iowa, and his son, Gifti, who the Hardings met through Kids Against Hunger, will be at the cook-off to speak about the organization.

"It's a wonderful, wonderful thing to do on a cold February Sunday," Cuperus said. "It's a lovely way to have a nice hot meal on a Sunday afternoon, and have fun."

To donate funds to Kids Against Hunger, write a check to Kids Against Hunger and send it care of Marless Cuperus, to 909 North Pleasant Street, Lakefield, 56150.

To compete in the Kids Against Hunger Chili Cook-Off, call Marless Cuperus today at (507) 662-5254.